India’s biometric smartcards, a good sentence about them

Overall, our results suggest that investing in secure payments infrastructure can significantly enhance “state capacity” to implement welfare programs in developing countries.

That is from Muralidharan, Niehaus, and Sukhtankar in the latest American Economic Review.  Their main result is this:

We find that, while incompletely implemented, the new system delivered a faster, more predictable, and less corrupt NREGS payments process without adversely affecting program access.

Most of all there is lower leakage of benefits, and program participants strongly prefer the biometric arrangements and the accompanying direct cash transfers.  The measurements of this paper, by the way, are based on 19 million data points.

I believe the Indian biometric smartcard initiative remains under-discussed and underappreciated.  It is actually one of the greatest achievements of contemporary times, based upon the innovative mobilization of the labor of millions in a manner that probably only India could do and that at first sounded quite ridiculous.  Scan, record, and use the biometric information of over a billion people, and in a “backward” country at that.  Well, they haven’t finished but it is well on track to succeed.

I do worry about the privacy implications of the technology and the data collection, but as it stands today so many Indians don’t have that much privacy in any case.

Here are ungated versions of the paper.  Here is my earlier post on the paper and the technology.  I had written:

One broader lesson here is that developing nations are not merely copying and applying the inventions of the West, but innovating on their own.  But a lot of their innovations take labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive forms, and thus they do not always look like innovations to our sometimes ethnocentric eyes.

Still true.


True, true. Developing countries and smaller countries sometimes 'leapfrog' existing technology since they have the benefit of hindsight; example: wireless telephone networks (mobile homes) vs fixed land lines for the last half mile; another is paying via your mobile phone (Sweden, Norway, etc, or even Serbia where you can pay for metered parking using your cell phone).

But nothing to get excited about. The real production possibilities frontier curve is being pushed out by the developed countries. If we had a better patent policy the curve would be pushed out even faster...

BTW, Paul Niehaus (one of the authors) is co-founder and president of GiveDirectly, the cash transfer charity.

How nice to read some good news on a Monday morning, any morning for that matter. Way to go India, rah, rah!

What are the implications for voter id in the US? Since this doesn't impede accessibility.

A national ID is impossible here. Many do not the federal government to have that authority, and not a few would think it was Mark of the Beast and the beginning of End Times.

Too bad, because it would be logical.

The license plate on your car serves very effectively as a national ID.

Except for the millions of voters who don't have a car. (At least it's an improvement on only allowing property-owners to vote.)

An improvement?

SS card not a national ID? Well, we also need a picture I guess. Why no do this at state level? But those who would like that often are the ones against using such an ID for curbing voter fraud.

"but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations" Article I, Section 4, Clause 2 on elections
"The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." 15th amendment on voting rights.
"Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." 19th amendment on voting rights.
"The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." 24th amendment on voting rights.
"The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." 26th amendment on voting rights

On what basis can you say We the People have not taken the power over voting out of the hands of the individual States and thrust it into the hands of the Federal government?

If all the States were trustworthy, one-quarter of the amendments (4 out of 11-27) would not be related to voting rights and repeatedly give the same power to Congress.

Also, until the badly crafted 14th Amendment, citizenship was purely about voting and holding office, and had nothing to do with residency or migration. But the 14th grants citizenship at birth to every human so baby girls logically could vote, clearly not intended, thus the 14th was immediately interpreted as not giving voting rights, thus requiring the 15th, effectively denying women a right courts would accept. Thus the 19th. But that did not stop the efforts to rig elections, so the 24th, then 26th.

"Indian biometric smartcard initiative remains under-discussed and underappreciated. It is actually one of the greatest achievements of contemporary times, based upon the innovative mobilization of the labor of millions in a manner that probably only India could do.."

It is called Unique Identity (UID) or Aadhaar scheme. It operated without a legal mandate since 2010. Citizens were forced by Administration at all levels to get an "Aadhaar" for accessing any service from the government. This was done despite several rulings by the Indian supreme court to not force such a requirement as a precondition for public services access. In order to overcome judicial opposition, a law was passed earlier this year by the Indian parliament. The law (mis) characterized the nature of the legislation, and is awaiting judicial review. More importantly, macabre stories about exclusion due to faulty biometrics, inability of a largely illiterate population that depends on state support to comply with Aadhaar requirement have only increased with every passing day.

On top of all that, Aadhaar's biometric technology is considered unreliable. Notwithstanding all of this, the biggest fans of Aadhaar initiative are among the technocrats and economists. They wilfully hype up the benefits of such an initiative, and turn a blind eye towards how it is used as a tool of exclusion by Governments at all levels. In many Indian states (many of them ruled by BJP) Aadhaar is being used to cut welfare rolls, and then pass it on as welfare reform.

Weasel Economists like Tyler Cowen by downplaying democratic values like equality (in public services access) and effectiveness (in service delivery) and prioritizing efficiency, are eroding the publics' faith in economists and indeed scholars of any kind.

The allure of IT enabled development is that it presents simplistic solutions that sanitize the messiness of governing ourselves. It is imperative for restoration of the diminishing Indian publics' faith in their governments, that eventually at some point in future, the courts will strike down the administrative overreach of Aadhaar, mandate strong privacy protections (which are entirely lacking now) and force the administration which arbitrarily insists on an Aadhaar as a requirement for everything - from registering a civil marriage to obtaining a duplicate key - to fall in line.

I refuse to believe Tyler Cowen is unaware of the human cost of such dubious reform. That he chooses to be silent about and sell it as some landmark achievement, reveals what kind of person he is, and whose interests economics discipline seeks to promote. This is the 21st century, and ignorant white men like Cowen holding forth about what is good for the former colonies, should be objects of ridicule. They sold this kind of welfare reform BS in the USA during the Clinton years. Now that America has grown wiser, they are exporting the worst aspects of American politics, by packaging them as technological reforms to the middle income countries.

In many Indian states (many of them ruled by BJP) Aadhaar is being used to cut welfare rolls


In an ideal world, I'd agree with much of what you say. But it's not like welfare services were easily obtainable pre-Aadhar. There was (and probably still is) mind-boggling corruption. Didn't someone (Rajiv Gandhi?) say that of every dollar spent on welfare, only 15 cents reaches the intended recipients?

GetReal is probably right though: if fraud was endemic in welfare, as it is here in Greece, then biometric smartcards would indeed cut down on the number of welfare recipients, causing real anger among the population.

First of all, Aadhaar is not a biometric smart card.

Tyler cowen was collating a biometrics smart card initiative in a workfare program in Andhra Pradesh in India with a larger biometrics based national identity project called Aadhaar.

Secondly, the ideological intent behind the use of policy instruments (like biometrics) decides the level of burden for citizens and welfare participants. Technocratic narratives usually sidestep the politics of administrative reform and celebrate the success of policy instruments, as a way to deflect attention from the true intent of such reform.

Soh, you are saying welfare was given fairly and without corruption before Aadhaar?

The long post that I have made here is either awaiting moderation or deleted.

But you can google for Aadhaar based exclusion reports in PDS in Rajasthan for evidence. Or better still wait till the next election to see media analyses discuss how this is one of the reasons why the Raje government is voted out.

On your larger point about welfare leakages, Aadhaar is not responsible for arresting leakages anymore than Aadhaar can provide "identity" to those who have no prior documents. Both are false claims. Many such dubious claims are widely believed because Indian mainstream media has wilfully let go of its institutional memory while reporting on Aadhaar (

You can read the report of the CAG which debunks Aadhaar based savings in LPG (

Aadhaar is being perpetuated on the manufactured perceptions of "good governance" that is far distant from empirical reality. When governments wilfully make false claims, they may be saving the immediate reputation of the ruling party, but public faith in government is being squandered.

Before Aadhaar, Indians had far greater faith in Indian governments and governance?

"white men like Cowen holding forth about what is good for the former colonies, should be objects of ridicule"


How? Are white men or for that matter first world economists entitled to hold forth on issues they don't quite grasp?

Is it their _whiteness_ that renders them incapable?

OK, I used the wrong metaphor. We Indians are colonized by the Brits, so we tend to use that. I would still argue Economists have this tendency more than other disciplines to speak about issues they barely comprehend.

"Get Real" That's a bizarre, feverish response, to an inkling of optimism News post.

I would feel more troubled if such perspectives were not being actively aired and debated, although I'm somewhat surprised to see it appear here.

"Anonymous" If you so dearly want to believe in that "optimism News post' (whatever that means), may I interest you in the sale of Taj Mahal too? Because unlike the trainwreck of public service reform known as Aadhaar, it is indeed a great achievement that does not require a hardsell by dubious economists!

I guess that is why the level of measured satisfaction with the program is so high...? Let me know once you get a better number.

“Measured satisfaction” Really Dr. Cowen? I feel sorry for you, sitting in the US, gullibly reading tailor made reports distanced from all reality and lining up to defend dubious reforms like a zombie economist.

May I ask where did you read that measured satisfaction is high for the Aadhaar project? Let me suggest a google search. The first hand news reports of exclusion in public service access due to Aadhaar are more than 1000 times higher than any reports of high “measured satisfaction”. The wilful lack of institutional memory while covering Aadhaar project by Indian mainstream media is also common knowledge (

Using weasel language, even Arvind Subramanian, India’s CEA concedes “It is possible that genuine beneficiaries may have been excluded from receiving the LPG subsidy under the DBT system because they lacked a bank account or for some other reason found it difficult to negotiate the new system. It is important to study the extent of exclusion directly.” (source:

Interestingly, neither Barnwal whose research he quotes, nor him care to do that. I guess that says something about how economic research engages with reality.

The informed consent procedure for Aadhaar is a sham ( Tales of exclusion are better reported in newly created web based news agencies and NGOs than in corporate media.

The last word on either the efficacy of the technology, or the legal basis of such reform is yet to be heard. However there is an unprecedented push by the technocracy to disregard judicial scrutiny ( and accountability (read the report of the office of the controller and Auditor General of Indian government debunking claims of savings due to Aadhaar here

Citizens in middle income countries like India, lack the agency to protest against government in the face of such a coordinated and overwhelming use of state power towards making Aadhaar necessary for everyday interaction with government. To have you argue that citizens have high measured satisfaction, betrays an ignorance of reality. Economists are entitled to their beliefs.But what economists choose to believe in this case will decide whether they value being regarded as a professional body of academic scholars or a cult.

Before Aadhaar, Indians had really effective means to protest corruption and abuse of Power?

You would have me believe that all the reports I've heard over decades of human rights violations in India with the government complicit are false?

Before Aadhaar, every Indian child got a great public education with books in good condition and we'll paid teachers in good school buildings?

Girls were not married off before they reached age of consent?

Are adult women denied marriage while 9 year old girls are married because the former has no ID but the later does?


Across 3 posts you repeat the same argument. So I will say what I have to say, only here. I am not the one claiming Aadhaar solves anything.

On the contrary, I argue, removing the undeserving people in the welfare rolls is achieved through de-duplication (as was done in the case of LPG and acknowledged by IISD &CAG, and PDS, as acknowledged by AP Civil Supplies department report). Aadhaar is not relevant to better governance.

The problems you outline, ranging from child marriage, human rights abuse, and what not are essentially social problems. Biometrics can't solve them even if the government would like to have you believe that.

Where is the evidence that Aadhaar has decisively solved any social problem? Supposedly it is a solution (a billion dollar one) that is looking for a problem it could solve. On the contrary, evidence of exclusion due to eager embrace of Aadhaar as a policy instrument is an everyday reality. It is rare for a middle class citizen to not know anyone who could not access some service or the other due to some issue with Aadhaar. So far its only use is as an instrument of administrative burden and program exclusion caused mainly due to difficulty in getting that document.

The smart cards that are discussed in the paper you linked to, are not the basis for linking "a billion people". Aahdaar does not involve the issue of smart cards.

Smart card technology is not widely used in welfare programs or even NREGA, the workfare program that the authors discuss in that paper. But do not let these minor facts come in the way of jubilant celebration of something you have no idea of.

@Get Real - OT, can you kindly explain how and why they use commas in Indian currency figures? For example, 10 000 000 is written not as ten million but something like 1,00,00,000. Oh wait, I see now, Wikipedia has an entry on this: Replace the zero with a comma? And India invented the zero and has world class mathematicians? How the mighty have fallen to zero.

Troll us for all you want Ray Lopez. Why do we use comma, you ask? Because it is there!

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